Employee Wellness – Proactive and Holistic

This article was originally published in Advocate NOVEMBER | DECEMBER 2013, by the Greater Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber of Commerce.

For many individuals and organizations the importance of a strong focus on proactive and holistic approaches to healthy environments is not well understood. A recent HR Reporter article included some interesting statistics from a Conference Board of Canada study, related to the cost of employee absenteeism.

  • The average Canadian worker was absent the equivalent of almost two full work weeks in 2011.
  • The direct annual cost of absenteeism averages 2.4% of gross annual payroll.
  • These absences cost the Canadian economy an estimated $16.6 billion in 2012.
  • Only 15 per cent of organizations measured the direct cost of absenteeism.

Although absenteeism is generally tracked and handled by Human Resources, it is something all levels of an organization should pay attention to. The rates of absenteeism and the impacts on organizations will likely continue to increase based on the aging workforce. Organizations can try to address these issues by tracking absences but, since close to 75 per cent of employee absences are due to employee illness or disability, a more effective strategy is to proactively address employee health and wellness.

Between 2010 and 2011, the costs of group benefit programs escalated by an average of 6.2%, more than twice the rate of inflation. Contributing to this figure are the increasing health risks among Canadians. Studies show that 63% of us demonstrate three or more unhealthy behaviour patterns (e.g. physical inactivity, tobacco use).

Dealing with employees’ health is an organization’s competitive advantage as the payoff is significant: greater productivity, lower absenteeism and presenteeism, and reduced healthcare costs.

Workplace health and wellness initiatives provide value to organizations by keeping employees healthy and engaged. A successful workplace wellness program can also help build an organization’s profile as a socially responsible employer of choice, improving its ability to attract new talent and retain existing talent. For example, surveys have shown that the Generation Y employees
(currently in their twenties) are the fastest growing segment of the employee population. They aspire to live healthy and active lifestyles, yet report the highest level of uncomfortable stress in their lives. Generation Y employees have a strong need for programs that fit with who they are and what they value. This includes wellness-related benefits, such as subsidized gym memberships, worksite fitness facilities, healthy food programs, and reimbursement towards the cost of education or selfdevelopment courses.

Some organizations struggle with where to start when considering wellness programs. The key is analyzing information from a variety of sources that are readily available and specific to your employees and then using this information to roll-out relevant and impactful programs.

  • Reviewing data – health risk assessments can be one way of collecting data about health issues. Most group benefit providers make these assessments available to employees on-line and will provide aggregate level data back to the organization. It is also important to consider data and analytics from your group benefits, retirement, employee assistance and disability programs, as well as workers compensation  reporting. Integrated data can be used to point to strategic wellness decisions about preventable health conditions where risk is present in a population, to promote health and healthy behaviours, and to
  • engage multiple generations in a workplace. Utilizing statistics specific to your employees will help you target programs that are relevant and impactful for your team.
  • Survey employees – just sending out the survey can be a morale booster as it shows the employees you value their input, however, there must be a willingness to use the information gathered so employees believe you are listening to their feedback.
  • Establish a Wellness Committee – the committee does the research, puts together a strategy, and talks to their colleagues about it. It is important to have a good cross-representation of your employee group on your committee. You may also want to consider including outside service providers or consultants who may bring added perspective to the discussions. Committees are a way to co-create wellness programs, as well as a strategy to boost participation, and to hear valuable feedback about the program.
  • Have a communication strategy - to effectively engage employees around wellness, it’s essential to communicate wellness program initiatives, program goals and incentives available for employees who participate. Create messaging that is clear, consistent and widely circulated. Management-driven communication around wellness is also invaluable - employees are more likely to participate if they can see that the organization’s commitment to wellness starts at the top.
  • Measure the return on your investment – the costs saved in terms of employee health resulting from effective wellness programs are often greater than the cost of the programs themselves, meaning that wellness initiatives can pay for themselves within the first few years of implementation. Knowing the return on your investment allows an organization to determine the financial benefits of the investments and can help sustain health and wellness programs in the face of competing organizational priorities.

An effective wellness strategy links all existing internal and external health resources, maximizing the program’s potential and outcomes, and incorporating the existing benefits program into the approach.

Having a holistic approach to your program can improve the overall health and wellness of your employees, including their physical, mental and financial well-being.

The movement toward a more holistic view of wellness echoes a similar movement we’ve seen in human capital management… that of total compensation. Helping employees see offerings or the benefits of offerings as a total picture also ensures employees have a grasp on both what’s available to them and the value in what’s provided.


Teresa Norris-Lue

Teresa is Vice President, Group Benefits & Retirement and Individual Life & Wealth with Cowan Insurance Group. She has over 25 years of experience in the group insurance industry both on the consulting side and with a major Canadian life insurance company